(Courtesy SFMTA)

SFMTA proposes car-free Golden Gate Park mileage, new Slow Streets

The Board will vote on the third phase of the program next week

It could soon be possible to travel from Ocean Beach to Market Street on car-free roads due to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s most recent proposed expansion of the Slow Streets program.

The SFMTA will ask its Board of Directors to approve a proposal that would connect Martin Luther King Drive on Golden Gate Park’s west side to John F. Kennedy Drive, which was closed to cars in April to create distance for park users, connecting via Middle Drive West and Overlook Drive in areas already closed to through-traffic.

“What we’re creating here is a true family-focused network for moving within the Sunset, and to and from the Sunset. This network provides better access, options and new and transformational opportunities for thousands of Westside families and residents,” Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose Sunset neighborhood is bordered by both Ocean Beach and Golden Gate Park and lost much of its transportation when Muni cut service.

Sections of MLK that would be closed to cars currently offer little to no street parking and don’t provide access to essential services, SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin told the Recreation and Parks Commission Thursday. Some sections wouldn’t be closed entirely, but would require cars travel at much slower speeds.

He added only minor adjustments would need to be made to maintain parking near the Polo Field.

“We want to make sure Golden Gate Park is accessible to a full array of San Franciscans,” Tumlin told the Commission. He called the plan a “remarkable compromise” that honors advocates’ desires to prioritize people over vehicles while still allowing individuals who rely on their cars due to age, disability or distance to enter the park easily.

A handful of staff members from the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, both located within Golden Gate Park, called into the meeting’s public comment period to raise concerns about how banning cars along JFK could negatively impact the ability of all people — including tourists, seniors and individuals with disabilities — to reach the facilities once things reopen.

Both rely on the park’s major roadways for access and parking for both visitors and staff.

Though these changes to the park are temporary for the duration of the public health emergency, many advocates have called for them to become permanent once shelter-in-place orders have relaxed.

SFMTA’s third phase of Slow Streets would also add 14 new corridors to the Slow Streets roster.

Staff believes the additions won’t just create greater recreation opportunities, they’ll also help spur economic activity by allowing people to safely access their workplaces or neighborhood commercial corridors.

“In order to support further reopening of the economy, we need to make San Francisco more welcoming and accessible for people who want to travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, skateboard or other forms of micromobility,” Tumlin said.

These corridors were selected because they help create a network that allows residents to access essential services and employment without having to rely on a car or Muni service, according to SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato.

Kato said the agency based its recommendations on community input and used the same framework as the last two phases to evaluate whether a road would be successful: mostly flat and within a residential area; connections to bike and green networks; stop-controlled intersections, ideally four-way; more than two lanes; and between six and eight blocks long.

Many of the proposed streets fall on San Francisco’s Southeastern side in neighborhoods such as Bernal Heights, Portola and the Mission. Parts of these areas are historically underserved by Muni, without widespread access to large swaths of green space and, to date, relatively barren of car-free or car-slowed streets.

“Clearly, as we stick with practices that will keep us safe, being able to get outside with enough space for social distancing is crucial,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, whose district includes many of these areas.

Slow Streets were first introduced in April as a way for people to safely travel by foot or bicycle while still maintaining social distance. The program closes streets to cut-through vehicular traffic, while still allowing access to residents and emergency vehicles.

Many have praised the program for facilitating outdoor recreation and making parks and streets for people rather than private automobiles.

Tumlin said the existing Slow Streets have been so heavily used, in fact, that a third round of expansion is necessary to accommodate the demand.

“Slow Streets are the only infrastructure investment we have ever made that attract users of the full array of neighborhood demographics — including children, older adults, people with disabilities and people of color,” Jeffrey Tumlin said.

Critics of the current Slow Streets implementation, though, have pointed to the initiative’s failure to find solutions for dense neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin or SoMa, where many of the City’s lower-income families reside as well as a high concentration of seniors and children.

These neighborhoods are again excluded from the third wave of Slow Streets proposals. Jefferson, east of Fort Mason, is included on the updated map as needing “additional study.”

While these neighborhoods are some of the most vulnerable to overcrowding and, advocates argue, experience some of the greatest need for easier access to secure open space, few of their streets meet the aforementioned criteria for the Slow Streets program.

SFMTA has made clear it doesn’t believe implementation of a Slow Street can be successful everywhere, but it points to its collaboration with broader neighborhood initiatives such as the Tenderloin Neighborhood Safety Assessment Plan for COVID-19 as part of its response to address the needs specific to the area.

The SFMTA Board will vote on the proposal at its meeting on July 21. If approved, implementation would begin in a couple weeks, according to Kato, who said they’ll need to restock materials to repair existing barricades and signage as well as implement new ones.

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